The pungent smell of red chili peppers is so strong, your eyes water as you cover your nose and mouth to avoid breathing in the stinging dust. Legions of porters, each carrying a 200-lb. burlap bag filled with the precious spice, stagger across the alley to a long wooden cart drawn by bullocks. Groaning, they deposit their load before heading back to collect another. Others sweep up the debris around the massive iron weighing scales that are a standard feature of Old Delhi’s spice market.
Once, this area was the center of Shah Jahan’s capital, Shahjahanabad. In the days of the Mughal Emperor (who is best known as the architect of the Taj Mahal in Agra), the Chandni Chowk (it means Moonlight Square) was an elegant street lined with mansions and shops with a large reflective pool in the center. Today, this is India’s busiest and oldest market.
We sit crammed in a rickshaw as our sweaty, handlebar-mustachioed driver careens through the streets, dodging cars, pedestrians and cows, peddling furiously into the labyrinth of tiny alleyways and ancient streets that radiate off the main thoroughfare.
It is just days before the start of the monsoon season, and the heat is intense with afternoon temperatures hovering at over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Overhead, a band of monkeys jumps around through the maze of antiquated overhead wires looking for handouts. Given their bloated bellies, it’s obvious there is no shortage of food for them here, including from the kebab stand where the smell of roasting meat and charcoal adds to the intoxicating cloud of odors.
The market is divided into sections. We pass shops stacked to the rafters with mattresses and blankets; in others, a kaleidoscope of colorful saris is draped over Styrofoam models.
The flower merchants have their own area. An old woman sits on the ground threading jasmine blossoms and marigolds into garlands for people to take to the nearby temple. Lotus flowers, the Buddhist symbol of rebirth, float in small glass vases.
Fruits and vegetables are displayed on rugs at the edge of the sidewalk. Mounds of melons and mangoes piled on wooden carts wait for buyers. Some have been cut in half to display their ripeness. They are covered with nets to keep off the flies.
Traders sit cross-legged on the ground drinking tea as they count their money. From the nearby Fatehpuri Masjid (mosque) comes a call to prayer. Horns blare and people shout. It is a cacophony of sounds, smells and chaos.
When the alleyway becomes too narrow even for a rickshaw, we disembark and continue on foot. Our destination is the area known as the Khari Baoli or the Spice Market. Located next to Delhi’s Red Fort, spices have been sold here since the 17th century by traders whose families have owned their shops for nine or ten generations. The scenes are almost medieval.
We are headed to the Garodia Market, an old covered arcade surrounding an open-air atrium. This is the heart of India’s spice trade. Above the arcade are three floors of brightly colored and ornately decorated apartments where the porters, who come from all over India (as well as squatters), live communally. The wholesale spice storerooms are on the ground floor. Traders haggle over the prices as their purchases are bagged and loaded on carts.
Climbing up through dark, dirty stairwells, we reach the roof with its bird’s-eye view of Old Delhi. It is not for the faint of heart. The rooftop is filled with debris, including bits of rusty iron and nails sticking out from old pieces of wood. If you aren’t careful, a misstep could land you in the hospital for a tetanus shot. As our guide takes us where few foreigners go, we attract a lot of attention and stares.
Red chili peppers are not the only spices for sale. In the area around Garodia Market, the aroma of rainbow-colored spices that are so abundant in Indian cuisine – cinnamon, turmeric, cardamom, pepper, ginger, cumin, garlic saffron – swirl around us. Shops with bright green shutters and pull-down metal sliding doors line the sidewalks. As we walk past, merchants call out, trying to entice us to enter: “Madam, madam, see my dried mulberries from Afghanistan. Best price, madam, best price in Delhi for you.”
Of course, since this is India, haggling is not only acceptable, it’s expected. So the “best price” is open to negotiation. In centuries gone by, spices were the currency of choice as the likes of Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama and others tried to find their way to India to bring back these treasures. Our guide explains that in the Middle Ages, a pound of ginger was worth a sheep, while a sack of pepper was considered to be more valuable than gold. Today, the prices are a bit more reasonable.
In the end, for us, the temptation is too great. We walk away with boxes of saffron from Kashmir, tea from Darjeeling, an assortment of nuts and those dried mulberries from Afghanistan.
If You Go to Old Delhi
Although you can certainly explore the market independently (take the metro to Chandni Chowk and then wander serendipitously), having a guide makes for a more pleasant experience. Most travel agencies in Delhi have private guides available. You can also explore the area on one of Delhi Food Walks excursions.